Andrea Leadsom. Image, BBC, fair use.
A key poll in the run up to last year’s Tory leadership election was funded by the same secretive group which funnelled a mystery £435,000 to the DUP’s Brexit campaign.
The funding of the carefully timed survey is one of only three known occasions that the mysterious Constitutional Research Council has been used to channel money into British politics – as well as the DUP donation, £6,500 was given to the MP and now Brexit minister Steve Baker, to pay for a meeting of the pro-Brexit MPs’ European Research Group, which he chaired. Baker was a key member of Andrea Leadsom’s campaign team, and sat on the board of directors of “Leadsom4Leader”.
The poll, which was conducted by Survation, was released on the day that Conservative MPs conducted their ‘first ballot’. The survey showed that, other than Theresa May, the only candidate with a positive net approval rating was Andrea Leadsom. Pollsters’ rules require that they are transparent about who commissions their work and Survation disclosed the fact that the Constitutional Research Council were their clients.
The publication of the poll was particularly damaging for Michael Gove, Leadsom’s key challenger for the support of pro-Brexit MPs, who it showed as having a net approval rating of minus 47% among the public. When the Telegraph published its findings the next day, its headline claimed that “Four in 10 Tory supporters will not vote Conservative at 2020 election if Michael Gove becomes leader”, and the article quoted two MPs, both of whom were supporters of Andrea Leadsom: Andrew Bridgen, and another “who asked not to be named”, according to the Telegraph.
The poll was one of only three published after the close of nominations for candidates – and after Boris Johnson announced that he wasn’t standing. It added momentum to Leadsom’s campaign at a key moment in the race for prime minister, as a number of candidates tussled to take on Theresa May in the final round of voting.
Under Conservative party election rules, MPs vote in a series of ballots, eliminating a candidate each time until two contenders remain. These two must then contest an election among the party membership. Survation confirmed to openDemocracy that when a client funds a survey, as the Constitutional Research Council did, they have control over whether and when its results are released. This rule, which is normal among polling agencies, means that the secretive CRC, which channelled nearly half a million pounds of dark money to the DUP to campaign for Brexit, would have been able to time the publication of this research in order to have maximum impact on the race to 10 Downing Street. We don’t know if the group commissioned any other polls without publishing them.
Andrea Leadsom was the favoured candidate for prime minister among a number of prominent Leave campaigners. Days before the poll was released, Leave.EU chair Arron Banks told the Daily Mail that:
'Andrea was the breakout star of the Leave campaign during the referendum: calm, assured and, in contrast to May and Gove, honest; putting the case for Brexit eloquently and passionately. Leave.EU will therefore be throwing its full weight behind Andrea.'
Without knowing who is involved in the Constitutional Research Council and who funds it, we can’t establish whether Andrea Leadsom’s campaign team were involved in coordinating the research and its publication.
openDemocracy asked the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards whether a poll such as this could count as a political donation to Leadsom. They don’t comment on individual cases, but referred us to the fact that, in 2014, Vince Cable was forced to declare a poll as a donation. All donations to MPs with a value of over £500 must come from ‘permissible’ sources, though they only need to be declared if they are worth more than £1,500. We asked Survation for the cost of a poll such as this, but they haven’t replied.
The Constitutional Research Council has been at the centre of an ongoing openDemocracy investigation since we forced the DUP to reveal that a £435,000 donation for Brexit campaigning came to the party via the group. Little is known about the secretive organisation, but we do know that it is chaired by the Scottish Tory Richard Cook, whose numerous business and political connections include the former head of the Saudi intelligence service, a Danish ‘private banker’ at the centre of a notorious Indian gun-running incident, Conservative Friends of Israel and the Campaign Against Political Correctness.
openDemocracy asked Survation who from the Constitutional Research Council had contacted them about the poll, but they said that this would breach client confidentiality. We contacted the offices of Steve Baker; Leadsom’s campaign manager Tim Loughton MP; Andrew Bridgen, who is the Leadsom-supporting MP quoted in the Telegraph article; and Leadsom herself. None got back to our requests for information about the poll.
Survation is a reputable polling agency which works with clients across the political spectrum and there is no suggestion that it has done anything wrong, or that the poll was anything other than accurate. However, the fact that such a secretive organisation was able to intervene in the election for prime minister in this way has raised questions.
Steve Goodrich from Transparency International said:
“Transparency is essential to preventing outside or undue influence over our democratic process. There are clear rules on what should be made a matter of public record and what the consequences are when these aren’t followed. Knowing who funds leadership bids is of heightened public interest, so it’s essential that all contestants ensure they disclose any support they receive in compliance with the law.”